Many business leaders look back on 2020 the year everything changed. A record number of CEOs stepped down, while plenty of first-time executives rose to the occasion and led their companies through the pandemic.
We are interested to see how business leaders are navigating 2021 so far, and what lessons they took from the year prior to be even more resilient and effective this time around. Here's what they shared with us.
Listen to Team Members
The executives that wore blinders and earplugs throughout 2020 are likely not in the same positions in 2021 - failing to listen to employees is not a smart move in this era.
"Lead with compassion, people want to be heard and understood," said Jason Wong, Founder and CEO of Doe Lashes. "When you treat team members as companions instead of employees, it can go a long way."
Company structures have changed significantly, and it's time for execs to adjust to a new, compassionate style of leadership.
How can you expect your staff to perform perfectly during a time of unprecedented stress and uncertainty? This is just not a reasonable way to lead a team, and problems are inevitable.
"Be a better leader in 2021 by understanding that your employees are unique individuals, not perfect robots," said John Levisay, CEO of The Pro's Closet. "They have their own battles and journeys throughout this pandemic, so be understanding. It's also great to cheer them on and acknowledge their successes at work."
In 2021, leaders should keep the pressure on employees, but with the understanding that things might not always be perfect.
If an executive is constantly surrounded by people boosting their ego and saying yes to every idea that pops up, how can they expect to overcome adversity and outmatch the competition?
"I think it's very important to have a feedback loop, where you're constantly thinking about what you've done and how you could be doing it better," said Tech Entrepreneur and Tesla CEO Elon Musk. "I think that's the single best piece of advice: constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself."
It takes a humble leader to receive feedback, and an exceptional one to actively seek it out.
It's easy to raise the bar for employees and partners, but how many leaders are turning the mirror back on themselves and doing an honest assessment of their own performance? Judging by the trends of 2020, not enough.
"Self-discipline is one way to be a better leader in 2021," said Jeff Henretig, President of Apothecanna. "It enables you to lead effectively and inspire others to develop their own self-discipline. Self-discipline isn't only what you do for yourself, it's what you do for others. It allows you to set the bar high for expectations and choices and hold yourself and others accountable, ultimately creating a high-performing, innovative, and adaptable environment where success is inevitable, both for leaders and their people."
The next generation of leaders will need to practice extreme discipline on every level, in and out of the boardroom.
We hear so much about culture in today's professional world, but business leaders must remember that it all starts with them. Executives set the tone from the top, and their practices echo through the ranks, even in remote work environments.
"Make the office culture one that everyone wants to be a part of," said Olivia Young, Head of Product Design at Conscious Items. "Encourage team members to do things after-hours once in a while, celebrate wins together."
If something needs to be improved in terms of company culture, leaders need to reflect on their own behaviors and code of conduct.
Speaking of setting an example, executives are the ones who everyone else looks to within an organization, on a conscious or intuitive level. This is great news for companies with strong leadership, but not a good sign for those without.
"Always lead by example!" said Divya Gugnani, Co-Founder and CEO of Wander Beauty. "Your employees are looking directly at you to determine their place in your company. You could be the current CEO of a future CEO; how you act around them is exactly how they will act around everyone else. Be the first to embrace new procedures to set your employees up for success; if it is important to you, it will be important to your employees."
Executives that fully embrace their roles will show up to lead, not just to work.
There was a time when top-level leaders could operate in secret and pull levers without employees or stakeholders catching on. Those times are over, and 2021 marks a major shift.
"Always be transparent in your actions," said Eric Gist, CEO of Awesome OS. "Make sure that your team knows the reason behind what you are doing and where you are taking the company. It builds trust between you and your team members."
The more transparency the better in the modern workplace, since this minimizes drama and increases individual input from teams.
Making the right decision is only part of the equation. As we learned from the events of 2020, those choices need to be made fast and implemented in full to be truly effective.
"A leader's decision-making abilities directly reflect their capacity for success," said Lo Bosworth, CEO of Love Wellness. "If you are confident in your skills and decisions, your team will hold their work to a higher standard because they desire to succeed with you. Sharing a common goal within the workplace makes your decisions much easier and helps your team when they are faced with difficult factors."
When executives start prioritizing speed and agility, that will usher in a new era of leadership.
Imagine a world where employees could speak directly to upper-level execs without fearing for their jobs or being considered out of line. In many organizations, this reality is here now.
"Welcome open communication with your employees!" said Tirzah Shirai, CEO of BlinkBar. "When you become a leader your employees can trust, they will be comfortable sharing their opinions. When you are all communicating about the work you are doing, more insightful collaboration is happening, and your end result is more diverse."
This structure doesn't always work perfectly, but it's a step forward in many ways.
With so many surface-level aspects of the business stripped away, leaders realized quickly that their employees are the true stars of the show. This will impact leadership techniques moving forward, without a doubt.
"Employees are a company's greatest asset - they're your competitive advantage," said Anne Mulcahy, Former CEO and Chairwoman of Xerox Corporation. "You want to attract and retain the best; provide them with encouragement, stimulus and make them feel that they are an integral part of the company's mission."
Now, employees have a bit more power and respect in the workplace, and that's great news.
There is no room for negativity in a post-pandemic world. Employees want a workplace focused on a brighter future, and executives need to bring that positive energy each day.
"Positivity is always a great default emotion when discussing change or future expectations," said Jo Parenteau, Co-Founder and CEO of Fable. "Positivity reflects happiness and if happiness is associated with a given project or chance, your employees will excel happily."
It's not always easy to remain optimistic in light of challenges, but it's a skill like any other that improves with time.
Be the Change
We all grew up thinking we'd make the best team leader, or the boss who truly treats others with the respect we always wanted. Now that we're in these authority positions, what are you waiting for?
"Be the leader you wish you had when you were younger," said Derin Oyekan, Founder and CEO of Reel Paper. "Be there for your team and keep an open door policy, but see it through. There is a stereotype that leaders say that but don't follow through. Do as you say and say as you do."
Things only change if we make the commitment to ourselves first, so start there.
What was a common thread among businesses that floundered in 2020? Lack of communication, and more specifically, failure to keep a two-way conversation flowing between staff and leaders.
"Communication is key!" said Tyler Boyd, Co-Founder and CEO of Squeeze. "When you communicate effectively, your employees will also communicate with you. Inviting this level of acceptance in the workplace is critical for optimizing your employees potential. Communication cannot be effective unless you listen as well. You are promoting an open atmosphere for your employees to voice their opinions and ideas, listen to them and provide feedback!"
Make over communication a habit, even if that means being a bit overbearing at first.
It's something we all struggle with daily, but perfectionism is really one of those silent killers in the business world. In 2021, business leaders have to lay this bad habit to rest once and for all.
"To be a better leader, you have to know that you cannot please everyone," said Kiran Gollakota, Co-Founder of Waltham Clinic. "You are going to fail and let your team down at times. Be able to take ownership of these actions and be able to move forward effectively."
As we learned in 2020, it's often better to just make a choice fast and deal with the consequences later - pivoting is the top priority when a crisis strikes.
How many employees bailed on organizations in 2020 due to poor conditions and a lack of respect from leaders? This forced many companies to learn lessons the hard way.
"When leaders show respect towards their employees, that same respect is reciprocated back towards the leaders," said Michael Waxman, Co-Founder, and CEO of Sundays. "Put in the time to show how much you value and respect your employees, your business will excel in response."
Now that top employees have more leverage, they'll need that extra respect and recognition that goes with it.
Good Energy Only
Once again, the importance of positivity is worth mentioning as a leadership trend in 2021. With so many executives reconfiguring their style, a lighter touch and optimistic framework is not a bad idea.
"To lead well during a year like this, you must possess a very infectiously positive attitude," said Brent Wicksly, CEO of Wicksly. "Positivity always reinforces growth. If you want to lead people you need to be a beacon for positive perspectives that fosters a motivating force for your team members. This good energy will make everyone see the attractiveness of excelling in their job and the mission which will help you move towards scaling up."
If employees sense bad vibes or a downturn in morale, this could be a dangerous sign for a company on the ropes. Keep things positive and push forward.
Leaders who think they can do it all never make it very far - that's something we've known long before 2020 rolled around. Still, this past year just reinforced this fact, as many leaders realized for themselves.
"I am a big believer in never asking my team members to do something that I would not," said Guy Bar, Founder and CEO of Hygear. "When your team sees you doing tasks that they also do, it creates a better culture of no one being above anything or anyone else."
Delegation will be the superpower skill of 2021, especially in remote work environments.
Perspective on Failure
Very few businesses can say that 2020 was a year of pure success - failures happened left and right. However, smart leaders reframed those failures and made the best of each situation.
"Embrace failure can actually help you become a better leader," said Alex Czarnecki, CEO of Cottage. "We are all human and sometimes we fail. The mark of a successful leader is when they fail, but admit to their mistakes, learn from them, and try again. Admitting these failures makes you more human to your team."
The whirlwind of 2020 might be over, but this positive approach to failure must remain intact.
One on One
Individual meetings took place now and then prior to 2020, but nowadays, they're happening much more frequently. That's a good thing, since more communication never hurts.
"Meet with team members individually to catch up on goals and also be real," said Bari Suzanne, COO of Stabili-Teeth. "Make sure team members are able to be human, to be open and talk about struggles either in work or in life. We spend a majority of our lives working alongside our coworkers, we need to make sure our people's wellness is a priority."
When leaders speak directly with team members, this builds trust and keeps everything moving forward on track, on schedule.
Everyone has had enough of the doom and gloom that came with 2020, so leaders should take a much more lighthearted and compassionate approach to their roles after the fact.
"As a leader I think one of the biggest lessons learned from 2020 was compassion," said Chris Caouette, Co-Founder of Gorilla Bow. "It was a challenging year and many people struggled to cope with conditions brought on by the pandemic. I believe that maintaining this level of compassion in 2021 will allow for leaders to be better in 2021. While employees are hired to contribute their efforts to the betterment of the company, this is not to say that leaders can't still learn to be more cognizant of the fact that their employees have other things going on in their lives besides work which affect them as human beings."
Productivity and achievement are still priorities, but 2020 certainly puts things into perspective.
Reinvest into Teams
Equipment, infrastructure, office space, furniture - these things can disappear in a flash, and what remains is your team! This was a tough lesson to learn in 2020, but a necessary one.
"As a business leader there are a multitude of challenges, ranging from making payroll next month to the art of employee," said Nik Sharma, CEO of Sharma Brands. "You have to remember that you run the team, and the team runs the business. Your job is to invest all your time and resources into your team so they can produce the best possible product meaning you have to fully devote yourself to the needs, both personal and professional, of your team so your production and operations maintains a standard your team will always strive to meet or go beyond."
More businesses realized that their teams are the most important assets of all, and that's certainly a silver lining.
Speak and Act More
There was a whole lot of talk going around during the 2020 crisis, but only the leaders who turned those words into action made it to the other side successfully.
This trend will continue into 2021 - communication matters, but only if they lead to something real and significant.
"Communication is a key soft skill to develop in order to become a better leader," said David DiLorenzo, President of Valentino Beauty Pure. "It's important to develop this skill in both verbal and written forms. This soft skill sets the tone for how people perceive you, which is key for becoming a successful leader."
We're all happy to know that 2020 is officially done and gone, but the lessons we learned along the way remain at the front of our minds. Remember these leadership insights as you navigate this year and many more to come.